Director Lluís Quílez (Barcelona, 1978), a reference in the world of short film thanks to titles such as “The Next”, “Avatar” and “Graffiti”, is set to release his second full-length feature, “Below Zero”, which Netflix  premieres on January 29th. In the film, Javier Gutiérrez plays the driver of a van full of hardened and dangerous prisoners who faces an additional threat from the exterior. An action-packed thriller complete with lashings of snow and freezing temperatures, but also of feelings and humanity.

This is not something we normally ask a director, because it is assumed that their answer will be yes, but are you satisfied with “Below Zero”?

You’re right. I have a lot of confidence in this movie. It’s a good representation of me as a director. The result is what I wanted to do and what I wanted people to see. It’s taken years of hard work to get here and I think audiences will enjoy it. I’m convinced that it will connect with them and leave them with plenty of food for thought. I’m excited.

Like your most popular short film, “Graffiti” (2015), “Below Zero” is also a story of feelings, full of love and affection. Although, at first, it may not seem like it.

The driving force throughout the script is a father’s love for his daughter, a father played by Karra Elejalde. And what I do is mix this with mystery and throw in a good few surprises into the bargain. I wanted to make a thriller with really strong characters, starting with Javier Gutiérrez and Karra, and not just ride a roller coaster of action sequences.

And that’s where the two different worlds come into play: what happens inside the prison van, with Javier Gutiérrez locked in with all those criminals, and what happens outside, in the freezing cold darkness of night.

It’s the clash of two ideas: Javier’s character represents security and order that the interior of the van gives him, and Karra, from the outside, symbolizes the wild, the visceral, the primitive. Half of the film is claustrophobic, and the other half is closely tied to nature, the cold, snow and water, which gives “Below Zero” a great visual personality. In addition, a huge deal of care has gone into selecting the audio and sound tracks.

Javier Gutiérrez y LluÍs Quilez
Javier Gutiérrez and Lluís Quílez. “Below Zero”.

In this sense, can you tell us where the inspiration for the themes and visual references in the film come from?

Yes, John Carpenter’s 80s cinema, for example. I’m also a huge fan of Hitchcock’s work.

Let’s go back to the van for a moment, to Javier Gutiérrez who’s surrounded by the dregs of society, so to speak. “Below Zero” is about the need to communicate in order to be able to address any threat jointly.

Another interesting idea in the plot is to see how different men like this guard and the prisoners are forced to communicate with each other, which by the way is what happens in “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976), by Carpenter. Javier Gutiérrez is an everyday, unheroic type who finds himself in an exceptional situation that’s much bigger than he is. He gets caught on the hop.

So you put a lot of thought into the choice of Gutiérrez, insofar as you’ve already mentioned that he doesn’t have that hero profile, right?

Exactly. I didn’t want a Mario Casas type guy for the role. The interesting thing was to see how Javier managed with so many enemies on the inside and from the outside. How he dealt with all this. In the movie, camaraderie eventually finds its way through and produces quite a few highly charged and emotional scenes. And until the end, the audience isn’t privy as to why the van has even been attacked, what reasons are behind all this and what are Karra Elejalde’s intentions.

Andrés Gertrúdix, Edgar Vittorino, Luis Callejo, Florin Opritescu and Javier Gutiérrez (backwards) in “Below Zero”.

Let’s talk about the cast: firstly, Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde, the good guy and the bad. Then, bringing up the flanks and joining forces in the same direction, we’ve got none other than Luis Callejo, Andrés Gertrúdix, Florin Opritescu, Patrick Criado, Édgar Vittorino, Isak Férriz, Miquel Gelabert, among others.

I knew I needed some pretty heavy hitters in terms of actors. We also needed a crew who could handle the harsh conditions of the shoot. It’s not the same filming at night in sub-zero conditions than a daytime shoot in a cafeteria. I needed actors who were “savages” and who could create the illusion that, indeed, we were in a prison environment. Even down to the last supporting actor, the selection process was rigorous, like with Àlex Monner, who only appears in one scene. Patrick Criado is brutal. Isak Férriz did some action scenes himself. In the case of Karra Elejalde, I wanted to recover that romantic Karra from his earlier thrillers, the Karra from “The Dead Mother” (1993) and “The Nameless” (1999). I wasn’t looking for the Karra we’ve seen recently in comedies like “Spanish Affair” (2014). There was great chemistry  between the cast during filming. Also, some only knew half of their lines, so improv became a big part of it.

Where was the movie shot?

The interiors, on a set. The exteriors, in the Sierra Madrileña, near Guadalajara. But we didn’t want the story to be associated with any one particular place.

An action movie shot in Spain… You’re obviously a director who likes a challenge?

Yeah, action movies are expensive and difficult to shoot. “Below Zero” came with a great many challenges. Huge challenges! Ok, so it’s a far cry from a movie like the “Fast & Furious” saga, but we do have some great action scenes, suspense and a truly mysterious situation. It’s difficult to shoot an action movie in an industry like this, which has accustomed audiences to comedies. And viewers like these comedies, so it becomes a self-propelling cycle that feeds off each other, but little by little, we’re starting to shoot more action pics and thrillers. The truth is that there aren’t many laughs in almost all the movies that pop into my mind. I have a natural tendency toward mystery.

Javier Gutiérrez. “Below Zero”.

A natural tendency towards mystery and a vocation for storytelling.

Whenever I explain to my students what I’m like as a director, I tell them the story of those ancient shamans who told stories to their tribe sitting around the fire. Now, the filmmakers do exactly the same as those shamans, but with special effects. In essence, what we do is the same as what they did in the past.

And how did this shaman get through confinement?

Well, like everyone else: making pizzas. And in keeping with the simile, I have three movies in the oven at different states of cooking! And I have also been teaching online.

By the way, contrary to what many people believe, “Below Zero” is not your first feature film.

That’s true, I shot “Out of the Dark” in 2014, a film I was commissioned to do and which has many things that represent me and many that don’t. I don’t agree with a few artistic decisions that were made, but I learned a lot. Going to Colombia to shoot has to teach you something, inevitably. With “Below Zero” I have taken the thorn out of “Out of the Dark”.

Pere Vall
Pere Vall. Journalist covering the world of cultural and entertainment in general, specialized in cinema. Pere is a regular contributor to Time Out, Ara, RNE and Catalunya Ràdio, and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Fotogramas in Barcelona for more than 20 years. A fan of Fellini, of good, regular and bad horror movies, and of humor and comedy in general. As a child, he wanted to look like Alain Delon, and has ended with a certain resemblance to Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. Not that he’s complaining though.